How a Growing Suburb Retains Its Character

City of Wauwatosa, WI

Milwaukee County’s City of Wauwatosa is the perfect place to live and work in the State of Wisconsin. For years, both public and private land has been creatively re-imagined and repurposed, giving the historic city its own unique flavor that cannot be replicated by any other Milwaukee area suburb.
~
When we featured the charming city last year, it had made substantial investment in public spaces, revitalizing its two business districts in The Village and North Avenue, even creatively turning an old parking lot into a landscaped gathering space. The city also invested in its prime retail centers. For instance, when launching the chic Mayfair Collection plaza, ownership transformed an under-utilized warehouse building into a 47,563 square foot Whole Foods Market and a HomeGoods, which opened in early 2016.

Keeping with the spirit of reinvention, the City of Wauwatosa has continued to develop its infrastructure, one-of-a-kind street design, and serene new pocket parks in ways that boost quality of life for residents while helping neighborhood businesses to grow. Its redesign has focused on adding green spaces within urban and residential centers, creating communal areas where businesses and residents can feel at home.

The Village is one of Wauwatosa’s most bustling places of business activity. The quaint area is modern in its amenities, yet rich in old-world charm. Its reconstruction has been a multi-year project that is nearly complete as of this spring, with the achieved goal of developing a streetscape that allows for the continued movement of automobiles while maintaining a pedestrian-oriented retail and dining destination.

As Mayor Kathleen Ehley tells us, the original Village infrastructure, which was over 110 years old, needed to be replaced curb to curb, building to building.

“We thought if we were going to do something that major, it was our opportunity to really think about the future,” she says. “Our effort was to plan for the future and not replicate the past. Even though this is a historic district and we want to honor that, the function needed to be for today and the next 20 to 30 years.”

To address the changes to be made to the beloved district, six years of city planning were undertaken, with an advisory committee and engagement from citizens, business owners, and property owners in the area, who all valued the uniqueness of Wauwatosa’s Village. Landscape Architect Stephanie Wilson informs us that a curb-free streetscape was used to give the area a distinct feel. A big section of the street was done using pavers to create a seamless space from sidewalk to street.

In addition to the new landscaping and design that unifies the area and gives it multi-functioning abilities, curb-width roadways were added to the Village, which can be safely closed and used for walkable events, balancing the coexistence of automobiles with the increased bicycle and pedestrian traffic that will only continue to grow. Unique measures were implemented, such as back-in parking, which is uncommon in the State of Wisconsin even though it is a safer method.

The unique character of the Village is further exhibited through the busy train track that runs parallel to the main street. Businesses are on one side, juxtaposed with Wauwatosa’s largest city park on the other. The lively Hart Park, located alongside the Menomonee River, is used for the farmer’s market and outdoor concerts, which spur the businesses of local farms and artists. The park features an all-inclusive, handicapped-friendly playground as well. In a special agreement with Canadian Pacific, the railroad tracks have a pedestrian crossing area with a gate, so that if a train is crossing, a sensor is activated to close the gate and reopen it when pedestrians are safe.

Indeed, “Nothing we do is cookie-cutter,” says Mayor Ehley. “We work hard to addresses the flavor of the surrounding neighborhoods as well as the business districts.”

The City of Wauwatosa listens to its business community and addresses their concerns in a way that is appreciated by incoming companies. During this intense period of renovations, the number of Village businesses actually grew.

“The construction was the biggest project we have ever done. Everything was torn up – at one point it looked like an old Western town, with plywood boards put down so people could stay out of the mud. For years, we planned with the business owners on how they could get through this. We gained three businesses during this time and have lost none. That is remarkable with a project of this size because everyone saw what this was going to be and was willing to weather through,” says Mayor Ehley.

The city promoted the importance of supporting local businesses through the Village reconstruction, whose fresh new design has been noted regionally. Moreover, with spaces filling up in the Village, Wauwatosa’s other business clusters are growing stronger as well. “The word has gotten out across the state about how special this area is,” the Mayor remarks.

Just a few blocks to the west of the Village and Hart Park area, also along the Menomonee River, is the Root Common area and its complementary pocket park. Root Common contains open grass space and a stage that can be used to host events, but can also be used by children to play. Across the street is a pocket park, providing a smaller, unprogrammed refuge space.

“They work together because one has the opportunity for more heavily programmed activity and people gathering, and the pocket park does the opposite by offering the contemplative passive green space,” describes Wilson.

Creating pocket parks throughout the city’s communities, with each one fashioned to suit the neighborhood around it, is another of Wauwatosa’s distinguishing factors. “They are gathering spots for all ages,” Mayor Ehley explains of the pocket parks. “It is fun to see the how they are used at different times of day and different days of the week. We have nearby public schools and every so often the students will walk to our business clusters after school. It’s great that they have a public place where they can go and get something to eat and bring it to the pocket park and hang out with their friends. At other times we have families, or little kids after a soccer match. Pocket parks are a center for a neighborhood area, a gathering place, just like the business clusters are.”

East Tosa, another important business district in the city, has also been enhanced under the “East Tosa North Avenue Plan.” As a part of this plan, the 69th Street Pedestrian Plaza project was designed by Smith Group JJR, constructed by Blaze Landscaping, and opened in 2018. The plaza features lounge chairs, picnic tables, a lit canopy structure, a “TOSA” bike rack, a bike fix-it station, and more. The bike racks were much needed to accommodate the North Avenue bike lanes, while the parking lot addresses East Tosa’s need for parking and improves storm water drainage with permeable pavement. The plaza also supports urban forestry efforts with newly planted trees and landscaping.

North Avenue is the longest consecutively running street in Wisconsin, and the metro Milwaukee area has been designing murals along it to beautify the historic, high-traffic avenue. In the near future, the city’s next step for North Avenue is to continue the murals in business areas along North Avenue.

Both the Village and 69th Street have added to their communities, providing more opportunities to engage the residents while also giving them a green refuge in the growing suburb. Wauwatosa is always looking for ways to improve traffic flow, economic development, and livability, engaging with stakeholders and incorporating new ideas into its comprehensive planning.

For new businesses who are interested in locating to the City of Wauwatosa, dedicated city staff will work with them to ensure that they are supported during this exciting time. The staff also focuses on retention of the existing local businesses that make the city so unique. Additionally, a community development authority made up of citizen volunteers oversees forgivable loans for businesses that are either opening or just want to enhance their buildings.

Furthermore, Wauwatosa works with the WWBIC (Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation), which started in 1987 and has grown into a support system providing microloans for entrepreneurs. The WWBIC also assists with business planning, mentorships, and coordinating with banks to source financial assistance for small businesses. “We as a city know the value and treasure of having a small business mix in addition to large shopping centers, chain stores, and corporations,” the Mayor adds.

Newcomers also appreciate the ample amenities that Wauwatosa has available. A range of housing options are open to residents, from very affordable to luxury apartments in the city’s well-planned, walkable communities. “From my home, I can walk to 26 restaurants, four grocery stores, three drug stores and a hardware store. You can’t find that often in a community,” Mayor Ehley shares.

A healthcare hub, Wauwatosa boasts GE Healthcare, Froedtert Hospital, the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, a medical college, a Wisconsin blood center, and many other clinics that provide employment opportunities and ensure that world-class healthcare solutions are never more than 10 minutes away. And for those looking for a spot to launch a medical research startup, Wauwatosa is perfect.

“We are almost dead center in the Milwaukee region, adjacent to two major interstates. Location is everything, but we take our location and have created an incredible community for people to live and work in. There is a lot to offer people who are looking for an urban-suburban location,” says Mayor Ehley.

In Wauwatosa, this growth occurs in harmony with the addition of green spaces, through parks and pocket parks in each community and the abundant green space to its north. Wauwatosa has 600 acres of green space, including the 500 contiguous acres owned by the Bureau of Energy Resources, the county, and the city that make a perfect wildlife refuge. Moreover, for residents who enjoy the greenery, within Wauwatosa are three of Milwaukee County’s parkways, known within Wisconsin as “the Emerald Necklace.”

In the future, Wauwatosa will continue to grow through expanding its amenities and developing its neighborhoods as perfect spots to live, work, and play. The Renaissance and SpringHill Suites are two new hotels that are set to open soon, much needed in a city that has come to be known as both a medical and retail/entertainment destination. New multi-family residential units have popped up quickly over the last five to six years, which fill within a year and have high occupancy rates of over 90 percent.

“It’s exciting – our population is growing,” says Mayor Kathleen Ehley.